“Gulfport experienced the worst flooding and storm surge since Hurricane Debbie hit the town in 2012,” Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson told the Gabber on Wednesday, November 12, after Tropical Storm Eta blew through the bay area the night before. “Since it was declared an emergency, the city has already been in touch with FEMA for relief.”
Tropical Storm Eta made landfall in Florida around 4:20 a.m. near Cedar Key with winds of 50 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The tropical-storm-force winds stretched over 115 miles from the storm, and coincided with a high tide in the bay area.
Six boats washed ashore on Gulfport’s beach and downtown waterfront Wednesday evening, November 11. At least six additional vessels in Gulfport city limits were either pushed into the mangroves or damaged as well, Gulfport Police Department’s Public Information Officer Thomas Woodman told the Gabber.
“Out of the six boats that washed ashore on Gulfport Beach, two of them were anchored and tied to mooring balls; the other four were independently anchored,” city staff told the Gabber.
“The two boats that did break free from the mooring field, it wasn’t because the mooring ball failed; it had to do with the failure of the lines tied to the mooring balls,” said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
“Emergency Operations Center employees and Public Works worked overnight and monitored the pump stations; no failures were noted,” said Gulfport Cultural Facilities Events Supervisor Justin Shea.
“The system worked though,” he said. “These railings and steel ropes kept the boats from washing into adjacent buildings and we’re thankful for that.”
Several of the boats that came ashore in the waterfront area also damaged the Casino dock and waterfront railings.
“As of 1 p.m., Thursday, November 12, it appears that the Casino floating dock and white railing on the east side of the Casino are a total loss,” Shea told the Gabber. “The damage has been documented and reported to the city manager.”
O’Reilly said that he will begin the process to repair the damage at the Casino, starting with contacting the city’s insurance carrier, though it’s too soon for the city to give a timeframe for those repairs.
“Currently, the GPD and the City’s Marina Director Denis Frain are presently identifying the boats and attempting to ascertain and contact their owners,” said O’Reilly. “The city will give the owners an agreed-upon amount of time to move the vessels, and if not, the city will facilitate the removal of the boats.”
Once the boats are deemed derelict by an officer, boat owners have 35 days to respond and comply with the removal of their property from the shore, Woodman explained.
If the owners don’t comply, the city will have to take charge, and the boats could stay put for months.
“It’s a very lengthy process,” said Woodman. “There’s only so much money that is granted to the city from the state for these incidents and we need to get approval for it all.”
Once the water receded on Thursday morning, several of the vessel owners were on the beach accessing damage and removing salvageable items like solar panels, electronics and personal belongings.
Boat owners, many of whom are liveaboards, were shaken by the effects of the storm.
“Our entire community is just in shock right now,” said boat owner Megan Woods. “Gulfport is such a tight-knit community and town, even more for those of us on the water; we’re making sure everyone is ok and finding out what everyone needs.”
“The winds were just too strong. They reached up to about 80 mph,” said boat owner Leo Potts. “The winds were so strong they pulled my chain and anchor, which grabbed a drowned and deflated dinghy with an attached motor and dragged that along with it to shore.”
Both Woods and Potts seemed at a loss for what comes next.
“The tides will never get high enough to allow the boats to be pushed back into the water,” said Woods. “A lot of us are homeless at this point.”
Woods plans to organize a GoFundMe page for those hit the hardest by Eta. The costs to remove the vessels can be exorbitant, and it’s still uncertain who will foot the final bills.
Waterfront Businesses See Extensive Water Damage
Boaters weren’t the only folks affected by Eta. Business owners along Beach and Shore Boulevards arrived as early as 5 a.m. to assess the water damage to their storefronts.
Businesses closest to the water, like Neptune Grill, Salty’s Bar, Paw Paws Pet Boutique and More Bazaar, saw the worst of the flooding.
“We’ve been through a lot of storms here. We prepped like we usually do, but it just wasn’t enough,” said Gini Fagan, owner and operator of Gulfport Beach Bazaar and More Bazaar. “We only had a few inches throughout. We’re just trying to remain optimistic. It could have been a lot scarier and worse, and more loss. Right now, it’s just a lot of clean up.”
Still, in typical Gulfport style, business owners were in good spirits and praised the community’s efforts to pitch in and help.
“Yeah, we took in a ton of water, but the community showed up in amazing, amazing fashion,” said Janet Impastato, owner of Let It Be Ice Cream. “It could have been worse.”
“We had a bunch of volunteers, staff and passerbys come in and help,” said Whitney, a Neptune Grill employee. “They just went from business to business to help each other out.”
“I opened the door, came in and people started following me in,” said Jill Rice, owner of Zaiya on Gulfport Boulevard. “They just took over; they even brought their own shop vac. This community is amazing. This community is a family.”
Most businesses affected by the storm will open within the next few days. Salty’s and Neptune Grill were both able to open Thursday evening, November 12, after a long day of clean up.
“Considering the bar was completely flooded with more than eight inches of water, I would consider us pretty lucky down here. Let the clean up begin…. The show must go on!” wrote J.P. Brewer, owner of Salty’s, on her Facebook page.
City Weathers the Storm
According to Mayor Henderson, 124 houses in Gulfport went without power overnight Wednesday and into Thursday afternoon.
“Duke Energy is out today making repairs due to all the lines and limbs that came down,” said Henderson.
But the news isn’t all bad, says the mayor.
“This is the furthest inland water has reached in two decades and we had no sanitary sewer overflows, which is outstanding,” said Henderson. “It’s a testament to the sewer improvements the city has made over the past six years.”
City facilities sustained relatively little damage, apart from the damage to the Casino dock and sea wall on Shore Boulevard.
A Message From the Gulfport Police Department
At least 12 boats came ashore or were otherwise damaged or foundered in the storm. On the waterfront, it was a scene that prompted local news media, as well as some national outlets, to focus on Gulfport in Eta’s wake.
“This is an ongoing problem when we have inclement weather,” said Woodman. “We’re asking boaters to heed storm warnings and take the appropriate precautions to protect themselves and their property.”
Woodson reminded boat owners that it is their responsibility to prepare appropriately for emergencies, and that not doing so can be costly.
“We suggest boaters use extra anchors, lines and chains to prevent boats from coming ashore during storms like this,” said Woodman. “We’re asking Gulfport boaters to be responsible boaters in order to prevent this from happening again.”